U prof lauded for dance, social justice choreography

Ananya Chatterjea became one of five choreographers to win a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Professor Ananya Chatterjea works on the choreaography with students in her contemporary Indian dance class Wednesday afternoon in Barbara Barker Center for Dance.

Professor Ananya Chatterjea works on the choreaography with students in her contemporary Indian dance class Wednesday afternoon in Barbara Barker Center for Dance.

Jill Jensen

Because of her effort to blend social justice themes with dance, Ananya Chatterjea became one of five choreographers to win a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.
The fellowships were awarded to 180 artists, scholars and scientists based on past accomplishments and future promise âÄî âÄúthe best and the brightestâÄù of a 3,000 applicant pool, said Richard Hatter, a spokesman for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Chatterjea, who grew up in Kolkata, India, and began dancing at the age of 5, is the artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Chatterjea said that during her childhood she saw street performers and social justice workers up close, and those memories influence many of the dances she now choreographs.
Before moving to the U.S., Chatterjea earned a bachelorâÄôs degree from Presidency College and a masterâÄôs in literature from Jadavpur University, both in India.
She said she came to the U.S. with a scholarship to Columbia University to study dance innovations across the world. She graduated with a masterâÄôs degree in 1990. She began work at the University of Minnesota in 1998, after earning her doctorate from Temple University and working as a visiting professor there for two years.
She formed Ananya Dance Theatre in Minneapolis in 2003 because she wanted to explore questions about contemporary social issues through an ensemble, not just solo work.
The company combines Odissi, a classical eastern Indian dance form, Chhau, an eastern Indian form of martial arts, yoga and general cultural practices into a contemporary technique based on Indian movement. She said dancers in her company have to âÄúbe OK with not making pretty dances.âÄù
Chatterjea said her choreography âÄúbegins with learning,âÄù as she researches and works with activists in developing a routine.
âÄúWhat our job is as artists is to take those facts and reveal the intangibles âÄî the human suffering, the pain,âÄù Chatterjea said.
âÄúShe is a person who makes dances that have meaning and depth,âÄù said Gina Kundan, the organizational director of Ananya Dance Theatre.
The company rehearses about 10 to 12 hours a week, Kundan, a friend of Chatterjea, said. That rises closer to 25 hours in preparation for a production.
âÄúItâÄôs not like you come to rehearsal for two hours, you dance and you go away,âÄù Chatterjea said. âÄúYou sit down and you talk and you figure things out. ItâÄôs a lot.âÄù
Chatterjea said she is currently working on choreography to express how women experience and resist violence through four paradigms âÄî mud, gold, oil and water. The second installment, gold, will premiere in September.
âÄúEach of these things are natural elements,âÄù Chatterjea said, âÄúbut the ways in which they have been mined and extracted and marketed and put to use and owned and possessed are ways that have inflicted tremendous violence on women across the world.âÄù
She said between 2007 and 2009, the company performed three works each year exploring aspects of environmental justice issues. For example, it considered what has happened to global communities of color around environmental disasters.
âÄúMy question is, âÄòHow can your movement shed light on some aspect of the human condition?âÄôâÄù Chatterjea said.
Sarah Beck-Esmay, a dancer at Ananya Dance Theatre since last May, said the dancers in the company share not only a âÄúlot of laughter, but a lot of deep thinkingâÄù in order to approach their work with an informed view and a social justice perspective.
Beck-Esmay said ChatterjeaâÄôs dances have purpose and a greater meaning, adding that the combination of the choreography and content challenge her to reach an emotional depth while remembering and performing difficult physical movement.
Beck-Esmay worked on a piece with Chatterjea before she graduated from the University in 2008. She said Chatterjea is âÄúhighly demandingâÄù in her expectations but also âÄúhighly nurturing.âÄù
Dance sophomore Preston Stockert said Chatterjea, who is his professor for contemporary Indian dance level two, is a very âÄúhands-onâÄù professor who teaches how the intent of the dancer can make the dance more meaningful.
âÄúSheâÄôs not just teaching us to dance,âÄù Stockert said. âÄúSheâÄôs actually teaching us to care about something else. Not just further ourselves, but to further our artistry so we can make an impact on someone else or something else.âÄù